Edited social media guidelines

Recently, we have been working with clients to develop their organizational social media policies.  We have seen dozens of examples and read many blog posts about what they should include and how they should be presented. Some were developed collaboratively by employees, sometimes using a wiki, and posted online to share with the general population.

Since we’ve seen many companies approach their thinking about this process ineffectively, we’d like to share our thoughts on how to do this well.

What is the purpose of a social media policy?

Social media policies are intended to make clear to employees what is expected of them, when and how they use social communities and blogs, and acceptable ways to mention their company. Often companies embark on the development of the document as a legal tool to prevent employees from engaging in unfortunate online behavior. When you look at large corporate policies, they often have a feeling of a legal document, with a lot of “thou shalt nots” in them. We advise companies to approach this differently.

As Alexandra Samuel says in her post on Harvard Business Publishing’s blog, Less Lawyering, More Encouraging:

“Too many firms approach social media as an exercise in risk management, creating policies that essentially discourage its use. Sure, the policies mitigate the risks of privacy breeches, productivity losses and reputation damage; they also do little to encourage the use of social media to create value, to realize the opportunities for problem-solving, relationship-building, and reputation enhancement. Risk-oriented social media policies have the further effect of telling all employees–especially the wary late adopters–that social media is a scary place in which known risks outweigh potential benefits.”

Rather than consider what employees should not do, it’s more constructive to encourage your staff to be an extension of your brand, rather than a threat to it. Companies that rely on teams, sales agents or dealers to sell their product, should seize the opportunity to help their staff succeed at fostering positive social networking relationships with their customers. Providing them with guidelines, training and encouragement can extend your reach in ways which far exceed the capabilities of an email marketing campaign or other more traditional marketing efforts.

That’s why we prefer the term “guidelines” over policies. “Guidelines” sends a positive message, and doesn’t have the legal ramifications of a policy document which intrinsically implies that to be effective, you must police in order to enforce.

If marketing dollars are short, why not enlist an enthusiastic fan base to help get the spread the word about your brand in an authentic and organic way?  When educated and trained, your employees can be part of your strategy for recruitment, retention, customer service, help desk and brand awareness.

We recognize that companies get uncomfortable about what could happen. However, the likelihood of negative PR is much higher if you don’t provide well thought out guidelines; or take the necessary steps to educate and train staff.  Ignoring social networking is not the solution.  In the end―people want to connect with people―not companies.